In their pointed use of the word soul, Aphra Behn and Daniel Defoe
dramatized the terrors of self-commodification that accompanied life in the
increasingly commercial English society of the late seventeenth and early
eighteenth centuries. I term the condition transactional anxiety: a fear of
impending degradation brought on by a coercive, often economically driven,
system of interpersonal dealmaking. As they participate in the system,
through courtship, sex, marriage, the family, business, or slavery,
characters speak in terms of their souls in an attempt to override the moral
and political inadequacies of a materially contingent self. With soul, they
proffer instead what they believe to be the unadulterated essence of their
Behn and Defoe engaged a rhetorical tradition that claimed soul enabled one to transcend the snares of the world, either in the Platonic sense, by providing access to a higher reality of mind (Behn's usage), or in the Christian sense, through its capacity to effect spiritual salvation (Defoe's usage). I find, however, that while they relied on the figure for its satirical, ironical, or dramatic effects, the two authors exposed the discursively rendered soul as imaginatively potent, but ultimately lacking in salutary force. Its use proves especially problematic where women, the poor and the enslaved are concerned, since those who operate from a deficient status prior to entering into a transaction can least afford to buy into soul's unfulfilled promise of deliverance from oppression. As a basis for confronting the exploitative systems that cause people to feel disturbed in the first place, soul proves woefully inadequate, and by its lack becomes productive of an even greater anxiety.
What soul-as-language succeeds in providing is a figural means for articulating the anguish of desire while rationalizing complicity in the maintenance of a depredatory structure by which one still hopes to benefit. The result is the deferral of mitigation of injustices that are highlighted, but not redressed, by soul rhetoric.